Pleasures and Days
by Marcel Proust
Illustrations by Madeleine Lemaire, preface by Anatole France, with four piano pieces by Reynaldo Hahn
Éditions de Fallois, 274 p., € 26
In 1896, the first work by a 25-year-old young man appeared in almost total indifference. Were these illustrations by Madeleine Lemaire, painter then in vogue? The scores of Reynaldo Hahn? The preface by Anatole France which talks about “Elegant pains”, of “Artificial suffering” ? This collection of short stories and portraits, no doubt confused with the texts written for ball notebooks or on albums at the entrance to the salons, helped establish the reputation of superficial socialite who was to follow Proust until his death.
Today it is this judgment that seems superficial. Of course, these first pages of Proust are crossed by the air of time, this melancholy “end of the century” of worldly writers like Jean de Tinan or Robert de Montesquiou, in fashion then, a little forgotten now because they did not know how to exceed it. But like Laforgue, Mallarmé or Huysmans, Proust, from the first pages of a book where there is very little talk of pleasure, makes a new sound heard in haunting scenes and figures.
Love is mirage, absence, illusion
In The Death of Baldassare Silvande who opens the book, the eponymous character, at the last seconds of his agony, sees his mother again when she kissed him on the way home and stays close to him if he cannot fall asleep. The heroine of The Confession of a Young Girl survives a failed suicide for a few hours and, while awaiting death, believes himself guilty of the stroke that struck his mother down when she saw his daughter’s face “Sensual, stupid and brutal joy”. The presence, the absence, the returns of this woman constituted the essence of her existence: “Is not absence not, she wonders, for whom loves the most certain, the most effective, the most vivacious, the most faithful, the most indestructible of presences? “
In the last text, The End of Jealousy, Dying Honoré de Tenvres relives the moments of his past when, when he was 7 years old, his mother stayed with him until midnight or came to say good evening at 8 o’clock. The mother is the one who stays until the end.
The love in this collection is mirage, absence, illusion, the antipodes of pleasure whose essence for Proust is bad. In the dedication of the work to his friend Willie Heath, who died in 1893, he writes: “Life is a hard thing that squeezes too closely, perpetually hurts our souls. ” Admittedly, the book also contains portraits in the manner of Saint-Simon, announcing certain characters of the Research like that of Elianthos who, young, beautiful, rich, is exhausted trying to please stupid men, because, says the anonymous narrator, “She’s a snob”.
Worldliness and destructive pleasures
There are also sharp and severe aphorisms: “An elegant environment is one where everyone’s opinion is made of the opinion of others. Is it made against the opinion of others? It’s a literary environment. “ The worldliness to which several characters succumb is destructive, as much as pleasure. In his cryptic confidences to Willie Heath, Proust takes up the story of Noah whose confinement in the ark seemed miserable to him when he was a child. Illness later made him realize that he could best see the world from the ark. His mother was there. Then, during her recovery, she opened the door of the ark, went out, then came back and, when he was completely healed, “Like the dove, it never returned”.
If he surpassed the languors at the end of the century, it is because he united in him this pain of separation with two consoling and constructive images of the world. In one, love is illusion and unhappiness, but the representation of unhappy love is a source of beauty, a path to creation. Even if he is not named, Schopenhauer is present. The other image of the world is also present through quotes from Emerson, Imitation of Jesus Christ and especially in the news story, is that of Christianity which permeates the epigraph at the top of the letter to Heath: “From the bosom of God where you rest … reveal to me these truths which dominate death, prevent fear and almost make it love. “
Light, mundane, Proust? It is true that he himself wanted to forget this book in order to devote himself to the elaboration of the Research, and the misunderstanding continued for a long time. In the issue of NRF from January 1923, Gide wrote: “The qualities of this delicate book, published in 1896, seem to me so striking that I am surprised that it was not at first dazzled. ” Just as he had refused Proust’s first manuscript, he did not really understand the text.
“Sometimes the image of the one she saw only two or three times and for a few moments, who holds such a small place in the external events of her life and who took one in her thought and in her absorbing heart until to occupy them whole, is troubled before the tired eyes of his memory. She no longer sees him, no longer remembers his features, his figure, almost no longer his eyes. This image, however, is all it has about him. She panics at the thought that she could lose him, that desire – which, certainly, tortures her, but which is everything herself now, in which she has taken refuge, after having fled everything, to which she holds as one holds on to its conservation, to life, good or bad – could vanish and that there would only remain the feeling of discomfort and suffering of dreams, of which it would no longer know the object who causes them, would no longer even see it in his thought and could no longer cherish it. “
Pleasures and Days, “Melancholic vacation”, page 114 of this new edition.